The Globe and Mail: Once Dr. Shahram Azam left Iran to tell his story of how Zahra Kazemi was brutally raped and tortured inside a Tehran prison, he knew it wouldn’t take long for Iranian agents to track him down. That made his asylum request to Canada all the more urgent. “We took his case very seriously,” said a Canadian official who worked on the file. “The Iranians were almost on his track and the life of Dr. Azam was becoming highly endangered and he could not have stayed in Sweden for much longer without witness protection.” The Globe and Mail
By MARINA JIMÉNEZ
Once Dr. Shahram Azam left Iran to tell his story of how Zahra Kazemi was brutally raped and tortured inside a Tehran prison, he knew it wouldn’t take long for Iranian agents to track him down.
That made his asylum request to Canada all the more urgent.
“We took his case very seriously,” said a Canadian official who worked on the file. “The Iranians were almost on his track and the life of Dr. Azam was becoming highly endangered and he could not have stayed in Sweden for much longer without witness protection.”
Dr. Azam fled Iran for Sweden in August, 2004, but he wasn’t convinced he would be safe there and wanted Canada to accept him, his wife and 12-year-old daughter as government-sponsored refugees.
At a news conference in Ottawa this week, Dr. Azam gave the first account by a medical eyewitness of the brutal injuries Ms. Kazemi suffered after her June 23, 2003, arrest. His account contradicted the official Iranian explanation of the Canadian photojournalist’s death that she died after fainting and hitting her head.
Dr. Azam’s fear of remaining in Europe was bolstered by the low acceptance rates of Iranian refugees there, as well as by a long and dangerous history of dissidents being assassinated.
According to human-rights and Iranian opposition groups, between 60 and 100 Iranian dissidents were killed in the two decades after the 1979 Islamic revolution, mainly in Europe and the Middle East. And while assassinations of non-violent dissidents appear to have abated in recent years, Iranian secret police attacked an Iranian political science professor and pro-democracy advocate last year in Quetta, Pakistan, where he had sought refuge.
Ms. Kazemi’s son, Stephan Hachemi, who flew to Sweden to meet with Dr. Azam, believed the emergency-room physician would be safer in Canada than in Europe: “We interviewed a Swedish filmmaker who had been doing extensive work on the murders that had occurred in Sweden of Iranian dissidents. We thought that because this was a matter that directly concerned Canada, that he should come to Canada,” Mr. Hachemi said.
Added Lorne Waldman, a Toronto immigration lawyer who helped with the case: “This man has dramatic testimony that would cause serious embarrassment for the Iranian government. He is much safer in Canada telling the story than he would have been in Europe.”
Yesterday, Amnesty International noted that in the early 1990s, dozens of politically active Iranian exiles were murdered, notably Sadiq Sharafkindi, leader of Kurdish rebels, and three aides in 1992 in Berlin’s Mykonos Greek restaurant; Kazem Radjavi, an opposition leader, in Geneva, in 1990; and Shapour Bakhtiar, former Iranian prime minister, found with his throat slit in his Paris home in 1991. Other Iranians have been assaulted and killed in Sweden and Norway.
In recent months, Iranian dissidents have been “visited by people who have intimidated them, giving them warnings, suggesting they should return home,” according to Keith Rimstad, with Amnesty International in Ottawa.
“To our knowledge, this has not happened in Canada,” he added.
Mr. Rimstad remains concerned about the other nurses and doctors who treated Ms. Kazemi, noting they could be questioned by Iranian authorities and warned not to speak about her case. Within Iran, security forces continue to harass, imprison and torture human-rights defenders and democracy activists.
Aurel Braun, a University of Toronto political science professor, said Europe has not vocally condemned Iran’s treatment of dissidents because it has pursued a policy of constructive engagement with Tehran in an effort to stop nuclear proliferation in that country.
“They are afraid of irritating or annoying the Iranian government,” he said. “Europeans also want to maximize their trade with Iran and are eager to access Iranian oil. They don’t want the issue of refugees and dissidents to impair that.”
Since 1989, Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board has granted asylum to 12,670 Iranians, although the acceptance rate has dropped to 61 per cent last year, from a high of 92 per cent in 1989.
Not all asylum seekers have had success; for example, Amir Kazemian was forced to seek sanctuary in a Vancouver church after his asylum bid was rejected. Refugee advocates in Canada have also complained about the removal of failed asylum seekers to Iran.